Orange Coast College received a $2.75 million grant this month, intended to increase the number of students declaring themselves as science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors through additional learning programs and supplemental instruction.

The college qualified for the five-year grant from the Department of Education’s Developing Hispanic Institutions program because of its high number of Hispanic students, “who make up roughly 33 percent of the student population at Coast,” according to a press release.

OCC geology instructor Erik Bender said the money from the grant will help students in navigating courses within their majors — one component of the grant being a full-time STEM dedicated counselor. According to Bender, this is the first time the departments have sought out a grant like this for these purposes.

“It’s incredibly difficult for students, freshman and sophomore students to navigate. I think it’s just that we have so many diverse majors in STEM and the Counseling department has an entire college they have to deal with,” Bender said. “Some things fall through the cracks so to speak.”

He said a lot of students don’t know which courses they should be taking or what sequence they should be taking them in, but that additional counseling with someone who specializes in STEM will be helpful in that process. He said this will hopefully attract more students to STEM majors and give them an incentive to follow through with that path.

OCC is expected to implement a large portion of these resources in the spring semester, specifically the “supplemental instruction, peer mentoring and counseling” according to Bender, but the majority of the grant’s benefits will be put in place by the next fall semester.

“I’d love to have everything really rolling by beginning of spring but with so many different moving parts it’s kind of difficult to get everything to mesh together really well,” Bender said.

After looking at the college’s enrollment figures, Bender said he noticed the STEM program wasn’t as strong as he would have like it to be.

“We’re certainly not having great success in retaining the students that we do have in STEM, so this is a way to basically help them out, encourage them to be STEM majors and retain them once they’re here — to show them what’s out there,” Bender said. “A lot of people have no idea what they could possibly do with a STEM major.”

Bender, who helped write and apply for the grant last year along with Dean of Math and Science Tara Giblin, said the money will be used to implement new supplemental instruction including tutoring and peer mentoring. Giblin has been named the acting vice president of instruction at OCC.

“Hopefully we’ll have schedules where students can come in for certain classes or they can make appointments (for tutoring),” he said. “We’ll try it a couple of ways and see what works best.”

He added that the grant is also intended to help those who aren’t STEM majors succeed in their classes. Bender said he is also working with the Math department to help students taking transfer level math classes “when they’re probably not prepared.”

“Our whole mission is to help those students out, to help them succeed in math classes,” he said.

The STEM center at OCC already provides study and workshop spaces and resources including textbooks, microscopes, models and specialized computer programs for math and engineering.

Bender said the new STEM center was an aspect of the grant, allowing students to come in any day to work on projects and homework. He said he expects the tutoring sessions to be conducted in that room in the future.

“We will be grabbing tutors from the sciences, physics, geology, astronomy, and bringing them to our STEM Center for full-time tutoring,” Bender said in the press release.

OCC also has plans to start a STEM Academy program in 2019, according to the press release, aimed at providing middle and high school students with “short programs to gain exposure to potential paths of study in STEM.”

The departments plan on conducting outreach in the near future, to middle schools and high schools and will give presentations on “what we’re doing here at OCC,” according to Bender. He said they will also have summer camp involvement for students to come to campus for science camps.

“We’ll hopefully have a summer project or internship where they are working alongside a professor on a research project,” Bender said.

The press release also said the grant aims to increase the “pipeline of future STEM teachers for elementary and secondary schools.”

“Because there is kind of a drain, shall we say, on people becoming science or STEM educators,” Bender said. “So there is an aspect of the grant to encourage people to go into education and become science, engineering and math teachers.”

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